Red grabs your attention. Today we associate red with danger, sex, anger and more, yet the colour was once so signiﬁcant that things which have a profound impact upon our lives were widely called red, even though they are often not red at all.
Spike Bucklow takes us from a 34,000-year-old shaman burial dress to the iPhone screen, exploring the myriad of purposes we have put red to as well as the materials from which it comes. The pursuit of the colour drove medieval alchemy and modern chemistry alike, and red has been found in insects, tree resins, tar, earths and excitable gases. It is associated with earth, blood and fire, with the holy, with national flags and powerful ideologies.
Red is a material and cultural history that makes one see this colour afresh, a crucial part of the human visual world.
‘[an] excellent and protean biography of a colour . . . the book follows a red thread through human history, whose twin strands are material extraction – the animal, vegetable and mineral lives of red – and the extraction of meanings from redness itself . . . Red summarises the search for redness, condensing a vast field of inquiry into a lucid narrative . . . Bucklow’s book restores many lost meanings. Starting from materials, from colour speaking through matter, it ends as a poetics of red: charting the deeds and sufferings of a light that has passed through darkness – through the “veil of matter” – to reach us and become visible in the form of a red sky at night.’ – The Spectator
‘an examination of the various origins of the colour – animals, vegetables, minerals and synthetics – and an exercise in cultural history that follows the red thread through Western and Eastern societies. [Bucklow] starts in ancient Iraq and Egypt, cultures that prized red cosmetics as necessary in the journey to the afterworld, goes to the Middle Ages and prized red hair such as that of Queen Elizabeth I, the 1940s in which red signified patriotism and the scarlet lady to whom “loose lips” divulged secrets, to present day talk of “red alerts”’.’ – Sydney Morning Herald
‘The many reds that we employ and enjoy come from some strange places: from dark brown earth and from black coal tar, from the bellies of tiny insects and from the resins of certain trees, from mythical dragonsblood and from excitable gases. Part material history, part cultural inquiry, Spike Bucklow’s ﬁne book traces the origins and applications of the reds that have surrounded us since humans ﬁrst sought to apply the colour to their habitats and their bodies. Above all it reminds us that red is never a simple matter. Red is mysterious and it is fugitive: often difﬁcult to make and to make fast, it is equally slippery in the human imagination. From red mists to red herrings by way of red lines and red rags, it is perhaps the most unquiet and unsettling colour of all.’ – David Batchelor
Spike Bucklow is Senior Research Scientist at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge. His other publications include The Alchemy of Paint (2009) and The Riddle of the Image (Reaktion, 2014), which won the ACE/Mercers’ International Book Award 2015.